Nobel Laureate and Laser Inventor Charles Townes Dies Age 99

Charles Hard Townes, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for invention of the laser and subsequently pioneered the use of lasers in astronomy, passed away January 27, 2015, in Oakland. Until last year, Townes visited the campus daily, working in his office.
Born July 28, 1915, in Greenville, S. C., Townes studied physics at Furman University and Duke University. In 1936, he moved to Caltech, from which he obtained his Ph. D. in 1939. His thesis involved isotope separation and nuclear spins. He immediately joined the technical staff at Bell Labs in New Jersey, where he stayed through the war designing radar bombing systems. In 1948, Townes accepted a faculty position at Columbia University and remained a consultant for Bell Labs. He transitioned from working on radar to using shorter wavelengths to do spectroscopy. In 1954, he and his students built a device to create an intense beam of microwave energy to use as a probe. They used ammonia gas and dubbed it a maser, for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.
Four years later, he and his brother-in-law and future Nobelist Arthur Schawlow conceived the idea of doing the same with optical light, but using mirrors at the ends of a gas tube to amplify the light to get an “optical maser.” Bell Labs patented the laser, while Townes retained the patent on the maser, which he turned over to a nonprofit. Townes’ appointment as director of research for the US government’s Institute of Defense Analysis in 1959 slowed his efforts to build an optical device, giving way for Theodore Maiman to demonstrate the first laser – light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation – in 1960.
Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with two Russians, Aleksandr M. Prokhorov and Nicolai G. Basov, who independently came up with the idea for a maser. Townes himself went on to use masers for radio astronomy, and lasers for infrared astronomy and interferometry, and promoted their use in areas as diverse as precision timekeeping – the atomic clock – and extraterrestrial communication. With the help of lasers, he and colleagues detected the first complex molecules in interstellar space and measured the mass of the black hole in the center of our galaxy. (Source: AP /Optik & Photonik 1 / 2015)
Links: University of California, Berkeley

 

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